Did Ancient Egyptians Have Airplanes? Mechanical Engineer Thinks So

December 16, 2014 Updated: March 27, 2016

Oopart (out of place artifact) is a term applied to dozens of prehistoric objects found in various places around the world that seem to show a level of technological advancement incongruous with the times in which they were made. Ooparts often frustrate conventional scientists, delight adventurous investigators open to alternative theories, and spark debate.

The pyramids and other advanced artifacts from ancient Egypt continue to awe archaeologists and archaeology enthusiasts, but is it possible the ancient Egyptians had aviation? 

A wooden carving dating from the 3rd century B.C. was found in a tomb in Sakkara (also spelled Saqqara), Egypt, in 1898. It was classified as a bird figure and placed with other bird carvings at the Cairo Museum, until Dr. Khalil Messiha, a medical doctor and Egyptologist, saw it in 1969 and realized it looked like the model airplanes he made as a child. 

Dr. Khalil Messiha, 1988 (Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Khalil Messiha, 1988 (Wikimedia Commons)

Professor Emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston John H. Lienhard explained in an “Engines of Our Ingenuity” episode: “The other birds had legs. This had none. The other birds had painted feathers. This had none. The other birds had horizontal tail feathers like a real bird. … This strange wooden model tapered into a vertical rudder. One can also see that the wing has an airfoil cross-section. It was all aerodynamically correct. Too much about the model was beyond coincidence.”

Some have said that what appears to be the vertical rudder of an airplane instead depicts twisted tail feathers, as shown, for example, on bird figures adorning boat mastheads in the Khonsu Temple relief below:


Messiha’s brother, a flight engineer, made a large reproduction from the model, and it successfully flew, said Lienhard. 

Lienhard noted that the 3rd century was a time of great ingenuity. He wrote: “No one could have come this close to the real shape of flight without working on a larger scale. This little wooden model could hardly exist unless someone had worked with large, light models, or even with man-carrying versions.”

MORE: Ancient Egypt Illuminated by Electricity?

Award-winning glider builder Martin Gregorie, tried to replicate the results of Messiha’s brother’s experiment, however, but failed. He said that without a tailplane, which in his opinion the artifact doesn’t seem to ever have had, the Sakkara bird was completely unstable. With a tailplane, “the glide performance was disappointing.” He said he doesn’t think the model was a test piece for a cargo-carrying plane. He suggested it might be a weather vane or a child’s toy.

Whether the Sakkara bird represents a real attempt, or even a successful attempt, at building an aircraft, remains uncertain. 

A wooden figure thought by some to be a bird, by some to be a plane, dating from the 3rd century B.C., found in Sakkara (or Saqqara), Egypt. (Dawoud Khalil Messiha/Wikimedia Commons)
A wooden figure thought by some to be a bird, by some to be a plane, dating from the 3rd century B.C., found in Sakkara (or Saqqara), Egypt. (Dawoud Khalil Messiha/Wikimedia Commons)

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*Image of Egyptian pyramids via Shutterstock